The Wildcats ruled the SEC and the nation last season, going 16-0 in the conference and 38-2 overall on their way to a national championship. They immediately required rebuilding, though, after losing six NBA draft picks. Five of those players were freshmen or sophomores.
The most impressive replacement is freshman Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-10 forward who averages 10.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. He has been named SEC Freshman of the Week four straight times.
He leads the country in blocked shots at 4.5 per game and had 12 in a win at Ole Miss two weeks ago.
“He’s got unbelievable length, he’s got unbelievable timing,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “He keeps himself out of foul trouble. He can alter shots in a lot of different directions and areas of the floor.
“We have to have a level of intelligence of driving in there and trying to shoot over the top of him, but I still think that we’re a team that needs to attack the basket.”
There are monumental implications for Florida in this game, and they go far beyond the pursuit of the team’s 15th straight 20-win season. More so than that or climbing in the polls, UF needs to re-establish its defensive dominance. The Gators gave up 80 points to Arkansas and let Mississippi State come within three points of its average in a game Florida won 83-58.
One of the most alarming numbers in Donovan’s mind is that the past three opponents combined to shoot 41 percent on 3-pointers against Florida compared to 29.7 percent in the first 19 games. The Gators can’t afford to guard the perimeter so loosely against a Kentucky team that ranks second in the conference at 36.2 percent on 3-pointers.
“Our close-outs have been a little bit shorter than normal — we have not gotten out there,” Donovan said. “We need a greater sense of urgency, understanding your personnel. Those kinds of thing are important. It’s an everyday commitment.”